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“Prioritize sleep.” with Sue Heikkinen

Prioritize sleep. You can have the best of intentions to focus, but being sleep-deprived will rob you of the ability to focus and retain information. Inadequate sleep also makes it harder to synthesize new ideas.Both quantity and quality of sleep are essential. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need about 7–9 hours of sleep nightly. […]

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Prioritize sleep. You can have the best of intentions to focus, but being sleep-deprived will rob you of the ability to focus and retain information. Inadequate sleep also makes it harder to synthesize new ideas.

Both quantity and quality of sleep are essential. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need about 7–9 hours of sleep nightly. Poor quality sleep can result from untreated sleep apnea, depression and stress.

Asa part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits for Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Heikkinen. She has 20+ year’s experience providing nutrition counseling and education for wellness and medical conditions. She is a nutrition consultant to MyNetDiary (www.mynetdiary.com), a top-rated nutrition-tracking app with over 11.5 million global users. Sue is also a clinical dietitian in a medical office.

Sue has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of Colorado and completed a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science and Dietetic Internship with the University of Minnesota. She is a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, Board Certified in Advanced Diabetes Management, and an American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer.

Sue avoided vegetables at all costs as a child and is living proof that change is possible! She loves helping people develop a healthy, guilt-free relationship with food while finding a plan that fits their lifestyle. Sue lives with her family in Boulder County, Colorado. She enjoys walks, hikes, and exploring the beautiful state. Sue enjoys cooking healthy, simple recipes–the more vegetables, the better.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Iwas the kid who would pick off any traces of lettuce or onion in a sandwich and move the peas around on the plate in effort to make it appear I was actually eating them! Who would have guessed this non-vegetable-eating child would grow up to be a dietitian? I didn’t discover that vegetables can actually taste good until college, a time when I also began to develop my interest cooking.

In college, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the health field, but unfortunately was too squeamish for many health professions. I signed up for a nutrition elective, the only course that fit in my schedule, and very soon I was hooked! As a double major in Biology and Psychology, I realized the field of nutrition offered the perfect combination of science, behavioral change, and best of all, food!

My work with MyNetDiary came about by reconnecting with a skilled and respected former colleague, Brenda Braslow. Brenda had been working with MyNetDiary for several years. She encouraged me to consider working with this innovative company, despite my lack of expertise with app technology. Brenda assured me that the app developers were committed to providing quality, evidence-based, nutrition information and resources to users. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’m thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to help people meet their health goals with the use of technology.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My husband, Chris. While we didn’t meet until I was well into my career, he is always the one to tell me to go for it, even during times of self-doubt. He observes that I find great meaning in my work and reminds me I will always find a way to be successful in a task that is important to me. Chris is also a guinea pig for new recipes and ideas and has even admitted to enjoying kale chips and roasted broccoli.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

During my internship, a supervising dietitian advised me not to ask patients open-ended questions, noting “they are just going to talk” and take too much of our time. My mistake was heeding this advice.

I learned quickly that open-ended questions are often the quickest way to get to the heart of the matter, ultimately saving time in the end. Asking a client what they would like to discuss can offer tremendous insight to frame the conversation, rather than diving in with my own agenda. As one example, perhaps a client is feeling devastated about a new diabetes diagnosis, which is important to acknowledge and address before diving into their eating plan. You have to understand the full picture, or else they won’t be ready to engage in a realistic plan.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

I would say, always be curious and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know or ask questions. You will never be an expert in everything. Nutrition is a young, evolving science and that’s what makes it fun and interesting!

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I thoroughly enjoyed and connected with Tiny Habits by behavioral researcher BJ Fogg. I wound up reviewing it for our blog on MyNetDiary. Fogg’s approach is to start with very tiny changes, which allow people to establish successful habits that they can then build on. While not specifically a diet book, this approach translates very well to making changes to the way we eat. I think people often get overwhelmed at the prospect of making changes, or set the bar too high, which is why the “Tiny Habits” approach is usually more realistic. I love his personal example of starting a flossing habit by committing to flossing one tooth!

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Don’t believe everything you think.”

Our internal “self-talk” can set the stage for success or failure. We will always have negative self-talk, but it doesn’t mean we have to believe it or act on it. I try to apply the self-talk strategy I use with my clients by asking: “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is this how I would talk to a friend?” If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no”, I know to challenge the self-talk.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

At MyNetDiary we have been hard at work developing new eating plans and accompanying resources, such as recipes, tips, and even interactive online communities so that users feel supported on their weight loss journey. I love that it will allow our users to take charge of their health goal. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eating, which is why a lot of diets fail! The best “diet” is the one that fits their specific lifestyle, preferences and goals, which is why MyNetDiary puts a strong focus on customization, offering customers a variety of diets based on their specific preferences from Mediterranean to low-carb or vegan (and many more). Furthermore, users can customize tracking options from measuring carb and protein intake to calorie distribution and macronutrient targets and get access to quick and healthy Premium Recipes.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits are lasting. Diet changes made by and relying on willpower alone don’t last. These will be the first things to go when life gets too busy or stressful. Form a positive habit and it will stick with you for the long-term. A diet that limits your favorite food will be short-lived, but a habit of putting smaller portions on your plate will help you reduce calories no matter what you are eating and what else is going on your life.

Habits are a no-brainer. When something is a habit, you do it automatically without extra effort. This is important when life gets busy and distracting. If you create a habit of putting your walking shoes and stepping out the door as soon as you get home from work, you won’t have a chance to talk yourself out of it. You will be in automatic pilot mode!

If you create a habit of staying away from the tempting buffet of food at a holiday gathering, you have made it easier to avoid mindless nibbling.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

A daily habit of taking a few minutes for gratitude has helped me tremendously. It is grounding and allows me some distance from daily stressors. It’s also a great way to start the day and set a positive tone!

Unfortunately, I’ve always had a not-so-helpful habit of being disorganized with papers and making lists is not helpful when you can’t find the list! Electronic alternatives have been a lifesaver for me. I keep running lists of tasks on a phone app, which allows me to not spend so much energy keeping track of them in my head. I use the list to prioritize what “needs” to get done over what is “nice” to get done. This allows me to be more productive during the workday and be attentive while working with clients.

The habit of tracking my food and activity in MyNetDiary has been exceedingly helpful in my personal and professional life, too. Sadly, dietitians are not immune to food temptations. I can speak from experience when telling that tracking is a convenient learning and a behavior-change tool wrapped up in one! I’ve found tracking to be especially useful during the COVID pandemic, as many people are struggling with emotional eating and disrupted exercise routines. It’s a way to put ourselves back in the driver’s seat, at least with our lifestyle choices.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

It’s better to start a new habit than stop a bad habit. For example, rather than telling yourself you won’t grab a treat from the vending machine at work, focus on a new habit of packing a healthy (or healthy-ish) snack for when afternoon hunger kicks in.

To stop bad habits, start by acknowledging how they are serving you in some way. Consider what you gain to benefit from giving up the bad habit. For example, a nightly bowl of ice cream may serve you by bringing a sense of relaxation. Is there something else that could also give you a relaxing effect, such as a lower-calorie option, drinking a cup of warm tea, doing a puzzle or journaling?

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Planning

The best intentions for healthy eating will fall short if you don’t have the right foods around.

Making a grocery list (and sticking to it as best as possible) sets the stage for success. I’m excited that MyNetDiary will soon implement a grocery list feature. You can bet I will be using it!

Tracking

You don’t have to be a data geek to get benefits from tracking. Whether you track what you eat, or the number of steps you take, it provides objective information and increases awareness of what is (and isn’t) working for you.

Leveraging environmental cues

When trying to eat healthier, you can’t rely on sheer willpower alone. Your surroundings at work, home and in the community, all influence your success.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Planning

While some people plan out their meals for the entire week, you may start with at least thinking of your day ahead. If you know you’re going to be busy or working late, can you take some leftovers out of the freezer or make something healthy the night before for a quick meal instead of ordering takeout?

Keep a grocery list on your app and add to it as soon as you realize you are out of something. You can also use the grocery list to make sure you stock up with healthy choices.

Tracking

Using an app like MyNetDiary makes it easy to track your food and activity, which is a proven method for success. It has a robust food database and you have the option of setting up reminder alerts. MyNetDiary has a feature which will tell you how long you need to exercise to burn extra calories from different food choices. This is a huge eye-opener!

If you would rather keep track on paper, get a small notebook that is easy to keep with you.

Leveraging environmental cues

Limit negative cues:

Keep treats out of sight to avoid constant visual temptations. Who could resist seeing a tray of brownies every time they enter the kitchen?

While its be difficult to entirely avoid negative cues in our society, do what you can. Skip past TV food commercials and avoid the snack aisle when grocery shopping. A man I worked with even started driving a different route home from work to avoid the lure of fast-food restaurants!

Make positive cues visible:

Keep a tangible reminder of your goal visible. This reminder could be writing out your goal, or posting a photo of a destination you would like to visit.

Create positive food cues. Put a bowl of fruit out where it is visible. Use smaller plates to help limit portions.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Make a schedule.

Don’t wait until you feel like exercising or finishing an important task. It is too easy to talk yourself out of it.

Put it in your electronic or physical calendar.

Set goals

You may have a vision of a “new you”, but what will it take to get you there? Goal-setting helps you align your focus. Break down goals into smaller, manageable steps.

Reflect on your progress

When you are in the middle of it, it can feel like you aren’t budging toward your goal. Compare where you are now to before you started, rather than comparing yourself to to other people.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Make a schedule

Put exercise in your planner, just as you would any other important activity. Schedule exercise with a friend who will keep you accountable. Sign up for a class, even if it is virtual.

Set goals

Grand New-Year’s Resolutions (“I’m going to run a marathon,” or “I’m swearing off sweets”) rarely work.

Set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Bound) goals for yourself. Don’t let someone else set it for you; they won’t be as meaningful. A vague goal of “I will exercise more” is a set-up for failure. A SMART goal might read: “I will walk for 20 minutes in the morning four days this week.

Reflect on your progress.

We all have challenging days, and looking back on our progress gives a sense of perspective. For example, our MyNetDiary users love seeing their weight loss progress graphed over time. It helps them realize that a day’s setback will not undo their efforts.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Fuel yourself

I had a client who struggled with concentration in the afternoon. It turns out she rarely ate lunch, sometimes just grabbing a handful of popcorn. After committing to take time out to each lunch each day, her focus soared.

Limit distractions

I know some people who can be productive despite constant distractions. I’m not one of those people. Even just taking a few seconds to check emails and texts is a major focus disruptor for me.

Prioritize sleep

You can have the best of intentions to focus, but being sleep-deprived will rob you of the ability to focus and retain information. Inadequate sleep also makes it harder to synthesize new ideas.

Both quantity and quality of sleep are essential. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need about 7–9 hours of sleep nightly. Poor quality sleep can result from untreated sleep apnea, depression and stress.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Fuel yourself

Eat breakfast. While there is debate about optimal mealtimes, research shows that eating breakfast can give you a mental edge by boosting short term memory, concentration, and creativity. Taking time for breakfast is a grounding way to start your day. Aim for a balance of healthy carbohydrate and protein, such as whole grain toast and peanut butter, or scrambled eggs and orange slices.

Limit distractions

Keep your phone on silent mode, ideally out of sight to avoid the temptation to peek at it. Use noise-cancelling headphones or listen to music. Consider using a timer to give yourself uninterrupted time to work on a task.

Prioritize sleep

Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends. Bedtime routines are essential for adults as well as children. Your routine might include a cup of warm tea, breathing exercises, or listening to calming music.

Avoid the use of electronic screens at night. Talk to your doctor if you suspect stress, depression, or untreated sleep apnea could be disrupting your sleep.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

Fuel your brain.

Your brain needs fuel for challenging work. Are you living off caffeine when your body needs real energy from food? It can be tempting to skip a meal in order to keep working on a task, but you won’t be at your best.

Move your body, outdoors if possible.

I’m not talking about intense workouts. Movement can help with alertness and concentration. Being outdoors provides a change of scenery, welcome sunlight, and a chance to clear our mind.

Avoid multitasking.

It is humbling to realize that I’m not good at multitasking. In the moment, I think I’m being productive, but after the fact, I see evidence of careless mistakes and not giving my best to either of my tasks.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to dismantle the notion that food choices reflect one’s virtue or self-worth. Unless you stole the food, you aren’t a “bad” person for eating it. If we could spend less energy feeling guilty and more time developing a positive relationship with food, we would be healthier and happier as a nation.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama. I admire her work at First Lady promoting kids’ nutrition and fitness. She is an intelligent, funny woman who has been an incredible role model to so many.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

http://www.mynetdiary.comhttp://www.mynetdiary.com/blog.html

Facebook — http://www.facebook.com/mynetdiary

Twitter — @MyNetDiary

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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